Friday, June 27, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 84, "Bubba's Big Brainstorm"

Oh, it's bad, all right... but, with apologies (is that the right word?) to GeoX and Greg, it's not THE WORST, for several nontrivial reasons.  Hear me out, I promise to make this as painless as I can:

(1)  The plot is reasonably coherent and logical, at least until we get to the land of the Ancient Thinkas.  Bubba's technologically augmented brainpower, and other characters' reactions to it, are built up in a reasonably sound fashion.  There can be no comparison with, for example, the grab-bag of Barksian, pseudo-Barksian, and just plain wrong-headed anecdotes that constituted "Once Upon a Dime."  Nor is there any single aspect of the story that is as egregiously idiotic as the "Cancel every deal!" madness that fatally disfigured "Yuppy Ducks."

(2)  The idea of an advanced ancient civilization that fell victim to... well... excessive civilization is a first-rate one and would have made for a superb story-pivot in a better ep.  The Atlantis of Disney's ill-fated (and, in my view, seriously underrated) 2001 feature film isn't all that far removed from the Thinkas' degenerated realm, though the fine details in the former were worked out with more success than those in the latter.  It doesn't make sense, for one thing, that the Thinkas' descendants have completely forgotten everything related to the history of the "ancient ones" but still know how to use those laser spears, or electric cannons, or whatever they are.  (How lucky for them that the weapons didn't break down or malfunction during that degenerative interregnum, eh?)  For the Carl Barks enthusiasts in the audience, the cluelessness of the tech-garbed natives furnishes an amusing contrast to the spirited Cura de Coco primitives of "A Spicy Tale" (UNCLE $CROOGE #39, September 1962), who gleefully await the instructions from "Tutor Corpsman" Donald that will lift them out of ignorance and onto the lofty plinth of comprehending contemporary pop culture.

(3)  While the Nephews are poorly characterized here -- seriously, straight-A students one minute, unable to complete a simple picture puzzle the next? -- and their bilious kvetching about the super-smart Bubba gets real old real fast, they're not AS badly characterized as they were in "Yuppy Ducks."  Heck, HD&L fans should be positively ecstatic at the boys' report cards after the strong hint in "Raiders of the Lost Harp" that they were struggling in school.

(4)  Frank Welker's riff on William F. Buckley, Jr. as the voice of genius Bubba is truly something special, even for that preternaturally gifted dialectician.  The use of Buckley as a voice-source bespeaks a certain level of faith in the sophistication of the audience (or at least its older contingent).  While Buckley was still very much in the public eye in the late 80s, he wasn't quite as prominent as he had been in the 60s and 70s, and his long-running PBS series Firing Line was winding down.  DuckTales deserves credit for eschewing the use of a generic "arrogant nerd" voice and going "full full-of-oneself" with this parody.  I've long since found that I don't have to enjoy what Buckley-Bubba is actually saying in order to mine a great deal of enjoyment out of this portrayal. 


(5)  There are one or two decent jokes scattered about here.  "You may now pass 'go' and collect 200 fish skins," for one, never fails to get a chuckle out of me.

The above being said -- or, should I say, being tremblingly brought forth for consideration by the "Brainstorm"-bashers -- there's no doubt that this ep does get a whole lot of things wrong, starting with the moral.  Ugh, that hideous moral.  DuckTales didn't partake of a whole lot of moralizing, and that was a very good thing at the time, since so many of the Smurfs-influenced "happy little get-along friends" cartoons of the 80s had well and truly put the stink on that approach to cartoon-making.  What morals DT did dispense tended to be innocuous, decaffeinated ones such as "be yourself," "have faith in your abilities," and "family is more important than money."  Up until "Brainstorm," the biggest mistake that the series had made with morals was plugging them into pre-existing stories where they frankly weren't needed, such as in "Down and Out in Duckburg."  "Brainstorm" blew such errors completely out of the water by getting its "intellectuals are all head and no heart" moral wrong.  Even had genius Bubba been portrayed as a thoroughly despicable character, this simplistic contention would have been a tough sell.  The problem is that Bubba is much more what Greg and other pro-wrestling enthusiasts would call a "tweener" than an out-and-out nogoodnik.  He does make with the egotistical comments, but, seriously, are they all THAT much more offensive than what we would later hear from Darkwing Duck?  As both Greg and GeoX point out, his ability to save the gang by solving various conundrums in the Thinka pyramid makes the negative reactions of HD&L, in particular, seem somewhat hypocritical.  The killing blow, so to speak, is the conversation between Scrooge and Bubba right before Bubba reverts back to his old self, during which Bubba (1) claims that his treasure-hunting efforts were only meant to please Scrooge and (2) voluntarily decides to murder his intellect for the immediate good.  The irony is that, were genius Bubba really as cold-hearted as Scrooge claims, he would never have decided to revert back in the first place (arguing that "the world can't be deprived of a genius like mine," or some such) and might even have decided to keep the treasure for himself (on the grounds that even Scrooge is too primitive-minded to make the very best of his gains).  There was no good way out of this emotional cul-de-sac.  In order to get out of the dilemma of dementalizing Bubba, the whole point of the episode had to be undercut... which means that the point probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.

The ep, of course, piles on its attempted moral (perhaps hoping that repetition will help to ram the point home) with the revelation of the "treasure," the book telling the story of the Thinkas' civilization.  The very existence of this artifact is extremely problematic unless one posits that a proverbial "last Thinka" was able to produce it before perishing, a la the "last Sobram" in the Lost in Space episode "The Flaming Planet."  The Sobram was more than willing to include the tidbit that his was a prideful warrior race whose demise was largely self-inflicted; I have a harder time accepting the notion that any Thinka would be quite so honest about his civilization's inability to combat "the monsters of [its] time."  (If the Thinkas really had become as heartless as the book claims, then wouldn't they have found it easier to lie about their past and make it seem as though their demise was less pathetic than it truly was?  Wouldn't such technologically advanced "hollow beings" have been just as likely to build "weapons of mass destruction" to ruthlessly obliterate their foes as they were to have quailed before them?)  The Ducks' decision to leave the book with the natives is, of course, supposed to "atone" for Scrooge's earlier, Bubba-influenced decision to take the treasure away from the "hopelessly backwards" locals, but it comes across as even more condescending than the original neo-colonialist sin.  How is learning about the Thinkas' fate going to lead to the descendants themselves reacquiring the knowledge and skills needed to plug back into civilization, even in a cursory sense?

I probably should have been on my guard about this ep's failings based on the opening scene, in which Scrooge declares himself incapable of deciphering the Thinkas' map.  I'm referring, of course, to the presence of mathematical symbols (one of which is clearly discernable, at least) in the upper right corner of the document.  Presumably, it is these markings which have Scrooge stumped.  I've learned through harsh experience NEVER to place complete faith in a pop-culture creation in which mathematics is equated with esoteric science -- unless, of course, the creator himself has significant scientific "street cred."

The revelation of Bubba's straight-Z report card isn't as surprising as the later discovery that these marks represent Bubba's first-grade grades.  If I were Julie Blurf, I don't know but what I'd be somewhat insulted by this.  In "Bubbeo and Juliet," Julie certainly didn't seem to be a first-grader; at a guess, I'd have thought that she would be around the Nephews' age and perhaps a little older than Webby.  Yet, there she was, taking art class with Bubba.

I'm not sure whether to classify Gyro's pressure-cooker "thinking cap" as a success or a failure.  I mean, it did its job, didn't it? -- it made Bubba smarter.  There's no indication that a design flaw in the "cap" caused the super-smart Bubba to become an obnoxious know-it-all, and Bubba's later self-adjustments of his cranial capacity -- the ones that caused his head to swell to a positively frightening extent -- weren't sanctioned by Gyro.   It's a shame that DuckTales didn't see fit to reproduce Gyro's "thinking cap" from the comics, but I can understand the DT creative staff wanting to avoid having to explain those birds in Gyro's belfry.

"Let's do the Beak Warp again!"  On second thought, let's not.
The rest of a longish Act One follows the subsequent blossoming of Bubba's intellect (and ego), culminating in his cracking of the Thinka map mystery.  It's unfortunate that the ep didn't make more of this latter achievement.  Hearing Bubba explaining exactly how he deciphered the mathematical symbols on the map would certainly have been more interesting than having him spout and scribble various forms of quantitative nonsense in a lazy effort to convince the audience that, yes, folks, he REALLY IS THAT SMART.  ("Pi squared to the 27th degree," my ass.  I can accept "fifth-grader" Huey not knowing what pi is, but Bubba's line is sheer gibberish.)  It's not just those with a mathematical calling who should feel vaguely insulted here; I was unaware, for one thing, that sectioning a pie chart and drawing a sine curve, among other actions, constituted coming up with great "business ideas."
It goes without saying that HD&L don't exactly cover themselves with glory here, for all of Bubba's gloating egotism goading them into acting like jealous jerks.  The HD&L I know might have taken Bubba's intellectual pretensions as a challenge and tried to match him in brainpower (probably with the help of the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook) while demonstrating that one doesn't have to be "all head and no heart."  Instead, they take the easy road and blow him off, even when a failure of his intellect (such as when he has trouble figuring out the ancient computer) might mean their doom.  At least the lads aren't presented as dolts the better to contrast with genius Bubba, that painful inability to solve the puzzle aside.
I'd have to agree with Greg that the inclusion of Launchpad as pilot here would have made the experience more enjoyable.   LP's reactions to the brainy Bubba would surely have been more entertaining than HD&L's, since he is perfectly aware of his own intellectual limitations and has no real problem with them.  Since "Brainstorm" counts as one of the few legitimate adventures (OK, quasi-adventures; we probably don't spend quite enough time in the Thinkas' realm to make that particular cut) of the Bubba-Fenton era, it's a shame that Launchpad couldn't come along for the ride.  Lastly, I fully agree with HD&L; LP would have found some way to fly a plane without wings.  I also think that he would have produced a more interesting crash than the relatively bland one we wound up with here.

While it does have its share of moments to shine, Act Three, the big Thinka payoff, is where this ep really falls down, starting with that first native encounter.  The degenerated locals aren't offensive so much as they are incoherently characterized.  They wear the remnants of the Thinkas' civilization as clothing and jewelry and still know how to operate the laser weapons... right.  The chief can barely speak one minute ("Uhhh... What you doin' here?") and is capable of speaking reasonably coherent sentences the next.  Worst of all, even a "primitive mind" would have realized that the arrival of "someone as smart as the ancient ones" represents a golden opportunity to recover the Thinkas' treasure.  Instead, the natives throw the "trespassing" Ducks into the pyramid... which just happens to be where the treasure is located?!  If you're going to do that, then why not ask the visitors to help find the treasure in the first place?  There are bits and pieces of a clever concept here, but writers Mark Seidenberg and Evelyn Gabai evidently couldn't be bothered to construct a medium in which to set them.

The booby traps set by the Thinkas to protect the treasure vault are reasonably clever, with one hideous, cawing, badly-designed exception.  Since the vault is intact, I presume that no Thinka descendant ever made an effort to dope out the musical tones on the ancient computer that neutralized the self-destruct operation (you'd think that some venturesome soul would have tried it, back when the natives weren't quite as bad off as they are now...), or to outwit the "riddle box."  The really peculiar thing about this sequence is the mere fact that the natives follow the Ducks into the vault after having tossed them there.  What motivated them to do that?  Was it the sound of the earth shaking when the self-destruct countdown was activated?  And, if it were, why should the natives even care that some "trespassers" are crushed?  The setup seems like a convenient way to have the natives on hand for the denouement, but the same effect would have been achieved had the natives stayed outside the vault and the Ducks had come out to give them the book in the end.  At the very least, Greg wouldn't have been driven crazy by the idea that the natives couldn't follow the Ducks when the former reached the three-way "fork in the tunnel."  (In truth, based on the visual evidence, I think it was entirely possible that the natives didn't see the Ducks take the center route.)

The appearance of the cockatrice marks a truly painful visual moment.  The design, the animation, the "voice"... all are simply dreadful.  Even the monster of "Ali Bubba's Cave" was well thought out compared to this.  The effect, of course, is to make what is supposed to be a terrifying foe (presumably, similar to the ones that destroyed the Thinkas in earlier times -- though how the Thinkas managed to train this one to be a guardian is beyond me) seem positively ludicrous.  The wonderful, eerily-lit shot of the Nephews and Tootsie trapped inside the crevice is completely neutralized, as is the restored Bubba's ultimate "clubba-ring" of the hilariously homely beastie.  You also have to wonder what happened to the cockatrice after it was thrown into the midst of the natives and subsequently literally backed out of the scene.  I hardly think that it was the type of creature to graciously retreat and allow the characters to dispense a moral that had already been made more than perfectly clear.

In the end, even one of Frank Welker's most memorable performances can't save this badly-conceived production from itself.  It's not the Spawn-of-Hell, "F*** you, DuckTales" travesty that some have made it out to be -- as I've said before, I'm convinced that this sort of fiery reaction is primarily ideologically driven, and there is a difference between disliking an episode because of poor writing and characterization and disliking an episode because you don't happen to agree with the philosophical point it's trying to make -- but the negative portrayal of intellectualism is certainly annoying enough without ladling left-wing animus on top of it.  For me, the saddest thing about "Brainstorm" is its tacit admission that Bubba, as a character in and of himself, is fatally lacking, and that you need to give the character a complete makeover in order to make him remotely interesting.  This is as good as a confession that the inclusion of Bubba in the DuckTales cast was a mistake.  Bubba will be a decidedly minor player in the series from now on, and I don't think that it's a coincidence.




Bumper #19: "Doughbegon"




(GeoX)  The whole thing resembles some sort of crazed, nationalist rant about intellectuals sapping our National Vigor. And they can't even get that rant right; we're supposed to hold Bubba in contempt for being too cowardly to beat a monster with a club, but wholly unremarked is the fact that, just minutes ago, they would all have been horribly crushed to death if smart-Bubba hadn't been able to correctly answer a series of riddles.

See my point above about HD&L's hypocrisy. 

(GeoX)  As Bubba ineffectually tries to decide which passage to take: "Louie's coin-toss is never wrong, Bubba! We go right!" Yeah! Your élitist commie faggot book learnin' is no match for our good old-fashioned common-sense salt-of-the-earth, uh, blind luck! Christ, guys…

It isn't even as common-sensical as all that.  Why would you use a two-sided coin to choose which of THREE paths to take? 

(GeoX) Also, note the way it's made quite clear that Bubba isn't just smart-Bubba; he's a completely different person (as explicitly evinced by the way he says "goodbye" and "I'm back!" when changing back to "normal"). We don't even want to suggest that Bubba could even potentially have something of the Evil Intellectual in him. God forbid.

That last bit doesn't bother me so much as the mere fact that the "recovered" Bubba is aware of what has happened to him.  That seems more troubling, in a sense, than smart Bubba's dismissal of his "primitive" past life. 

(GeoX) "How long is a piece of string?" "[It's] Twice the distance from the center to either end!" So the answer is "twice as long as half a piece of string?" And only the genius could figure that out? Ducktales' idea of relative intelligence is kind of terrifying.

Hey, at least that was more imaginative than the nursery-school riddles that made up the remainder of the trap-quelling trilogy. 

(Greg) ...Bubba proclaims that he has ideas to boost [Scrooge's] profits as shown on his notepad. Scrooge loves this and offers [to let him] stay in the mansion as a reward. Okay; I got to admit, they booked this scene right since Scrooge loves Bubba as this because it benefits him. And Bubba seems to have no trouble with Scrooge anymore. It doesn't save the rest of this episode; but this scene doesn't insult me like the rest of it.

Scrooge's characterization in this episode is not without its own share of problems.  One can easily imagine him falling in love with the super-smart, business-savvy Bubba, or even agreeing with Bubba that the natives don't "deserve" to keep the treasure (Scrooge has a knack for justifying such actions to himself without any outside assistance).  But blowing off the "appointment-less" Nephews when they come to the "Think Tank" and want to play with Bubba?  That seems rather harsh.  Needless to say, Scrooge is quick to recover his senses when his family members are in danger, the better to provide a contrast to the dismissive Bubba.

(Greg) Scrooge can smell the treasure; Dewey only smells trouble as the walls pop up surrounding them and they then for some reason push right towards them. I'm not going to point out the obvious logic break here because it is such a waste of my time...CLIMB OUT YOU F***S~!

"Climb out?  Why, I, I wouldn't know where to begin."

(Greg) Yeah; apparently; the ancient thinkers were so smart that they used picture books instead of complex words with no pictures in it. UGH!

Actually, I don't have a problem with this.  The Thinkas might have reasoned that those who came after them would be less advanced than they were, so why not tell the story in a simple a manner as possible?

Next: Episode 85, "Dough Ray Me."


Pan Miluś said...

I still find this episode ok, even if I can defend it beyond "Walkers voice as smart Bubba is cool".

I don't think creators ment the episode to be anti-intelectual as much anti-snobbish... "You can cary away with trying to be the smartest and you can lose track of what is important like friendship" - that's not that bad of a moral, is it?

BTW-> OF ALL reviews when you could bring up My Little Pony this one was perfect to compare Twilight Sparkle to smart Bubba...

P.S. And yes - Geox comment about HD&L coin toss is still the funnyest thing he writen in his Duck Tales reviews in my opinion :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think this episode is that bad. I think the moral is a flawed attempt at accepting people for who they are rather than trying to change them.

Joe Torcivia said...

“Bubba’s Big Brainstorm” was NOT the worst episode of DUCKTALES! “Yuppy Ducks” was! Though “Brainstorm” IS an additional example of just how far off the track DT had hurdled vs. its First Season.

Funny how, in their supposed greater days, the Thinkas looked more like a cross between Huckleberry Hound and Underdog, and, in their decline, looked more like Disney comic book characters that Kay Wright could have drawn in the mid-seventies. Can anything say “decline” better than that?

Pan Miluś said...

NO! "Bride wore stripes" is the worse!!!

Chris Barat said...


"OF ALL reviews when you could bring up My Little Pony this one was perfect to compare Twilight Sparkle to smart Bubba..."

It would be perfect if they were REMOTELY comparable. But they're not. Despite his generous decision to revert back to original Bubba in the end, smart Bubba is considerably less likable than Twilight, primarily because of all those egotistical comments.


Comicbookrehab said...

It would've been nice if the episode had ended on an ambiguous note - that Bubba's intelligence MIGHT have evolved as a permanent effect of using the thinking cap, allowing for occasional "brainstorms" that could've improved his role on the show. For instance: we see him coloring in the books in Scrooge's library, but suppose the scribblings and doodles were recreations Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian paintings?...or gradual, in-character lapses of eloquence?

And Launchpad or Fenton would've been more fun accompanying Scrooge and Bubba on the treasure hunt than HD&L; the only episodes that would correspond with this would be "Aqua Ducks" or "Three Ducks of The Condor", where the nephews were not in the picture. I never understood why Fenton/Gizmoduck never had scenes with Bubba and Tootsie.

I did enjoy Tress Macneille's other performance in this episode as the woman who wants Bubba to solve her crossword puzzle for her. That felt like a Carl Barks joke.